The shield boss and other hardware from the Sutton Hoo shield.

Protecting Your Head with Jesus: a Note on ‘Helm’

It’s always interesting to see what a culture uses in its material metaphors. For instance, while English-speaking couples talk to one another, one of the most common terms we see used is “dear,” which was something I always understood as just a placeholder for “someone I hold dear” when my parents would use it. Well, around high school I started hearing more Beatles songs, and I guess no one needs me to remind them that Ringo was all about renting “a cottage in the Isle of Wight / if it’s not too dear.” All of a sudden I have “dear” as an adjective that literally means “expensive,” not just “important.” A bit later, I pick up some German and find out that the equivalent expression is “Schatz,” which translates literally as “treasure.” Not exactly the same, but definitely similar.

Well, let me ask you this: is there an object we use in modern English to depict the idea of protecting someone from harm? I can think of at least three, although the one I believe is strongest in that connotation in American English is “shield,” as in “The glass of the greenhouse shielded us from the rain.” Brits might prefer “screen” in some instances, such as “windscreen,” and we also use the word “block,” as in “sunblock,” although I’m not sure exactly what the etymology on that is (the OED lists no examples for its 19th meaning, “An obstruction or stoppage of traffic or progress,” though the specific context of blocking a bill through parliament is first listed in 1861).

One of the ones I keep coming across in my Old English reading is helm, which is exactly what you might think it is: a helmet. In fact, it’s so synonymous with protecting someone that it gets used to describe a major aspect of Christ: “the helmet of creatures.” It’s not just in the largest collection of Old English poetry, either; it’s also in the largest Old English poem, namely Beowulf, when Hrothgar is described as “helm Scyldinga” not once, but twice within the space of about 85 lines. With all the envelope patterns running up and down that poem, I think that looks pretty significant.

Helmets were important in material culture, as well. I need only mention Sutton Hoo and the helmet found there to prove that point, though there is another excellent example in the York Helmet. It makes sense that they would be a valuable part of the armor a warrior would wear, but I must admit that I think it’s interesting: our warriors today still wear helmets, but our idiomatic metaphor is “shield,” while the early English used shields and valued them greatly, as well, but helm is what is used here. I don’t think it really means anything important; it’s just an interesting coincidence, like the fact that we park on driveways and drive on parkways.

*A note on the image above: I would have gone with my photo of the Sutton Hoo helmet, but it’s not really that great. Believe it or not, the shield (which is still a part of this article, at least) is a lot better.

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